[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

 

September 18, 2006

 

This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin

 

Government Investigation Committee

 

The Israeli government approved the Vinograd Committee, its members and it mandate, to undertake the investigation of “what went wrong” and who is responsible for the less than satisfactory performance of the army and the government in the second Lebanese war.  The Committee is mandated to conduct a full investigation, with the right to call witnesses from both the Government and the army.  As written in a previous column, the Committee will not ask the question if the war could have been avoided and if Israel had other non-military options to confront the crisis in the north after the Hizbollah invasion of Israel, the kidnapping and the killing of Israeli soldiers.

 

While we’re discussing the issue of investigation committees and the failures of Israeli government policies and performance, it is appropriate to ask why a committee was never established to investigate the failures of policy and performance of past and present Israelis governments vis-à-vis the peace process? Such a committee should be established, if not by the Government or by the Knesset, than by civil society.  Some of the questions that such a committee should address include:

 

 

The questions could go on and on.  Why shouldn’t these questions be asked and answered?  The failure of the peace process has cost Israel significantly more in human life and suffering and in finances than the war in Lebanon.  These questions should not be left unanswered and the people of Israel deserve to have their leaders be held responsible for their answers.

 

These questions do not in anyway relieve the Palestinians of their obligation to ask questions and give answers about their failures in policy and performance, which were many and quite significant. Palestinian leaders should also be brought to testify about their responsibility for so much suffering, loss of human life and destruction.

 

 

 

 

Prisoner exchanges

 

In order to secure the release of Corporal Gilead Shalit, who was abducted and is being held by Hamas militants in Gaza, Israel will have to release Palestinians from Israeli prisons. This is not very appealing to the Israeli public or to Israeli leaders who would rather imagine that Shalit will be freed without a prisoner exchange.  The notion that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” adheres to the belief that if we do negotiate with terrorists, we will be paving the path for the next kidnapping.  That may be true, but unless Israel can find a way to locate the kidnapped soldier, and to devise a plan to free him without him being killed, Israel will have to negotiate with terrorists.  In fact, Israel has already begun the negotiations.

 

In the end, hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli prisons will be released in exchange for Shalit.  The Hamas is demanding a mixture of women, minors, veteran prisoners, political leaders from Hamas and the top Fatah leaders in prisons.  It is unlikely that Israel will give in to all of those demands, but there will be significant release of several hundred, regardless of the rhetoric that we do not negotiate with terrorists.

 

The Government of Israel has no choice, because it has always told the public and its soldiers that they will not be left behind.  Israel will attempt to “spin” the Shalit release by detaching it from the release of the Palestinians.  Shalit will probably be released to the Egyptians or to Palestinian President Abbas and then held “in trust” until Israel releases the Palestinian prisoners. Prime Minister Olmert will present it as a good will gesture towards President Abbas.  Israel will say that “we always release Palestinian prisoners during the holy month of Ramadan, as a good will gesture towards the Muslims”.  Anything and everything will be said in order to make the point that Israel did not talk to the Hamas.

 

Knowing that in the end a prisoner exchange will be made, the question must be asked if this act could not be exploited to gain more benefits.  Why leave the undesirable act of freeing Palestinian prisoners only for a kidnapped soldier?  There is an opportunity here to expand the process to include a larger prisoner release (there are more than 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons). We could negotiate a real ceasefire, or what the Palestinians call a “hudna”.  Palestinian leaders from Hamas have already stated that they are interested in a bilateral ceasefire with Israel.  Hamas leaders have said that even the Islamic Jihad faction will support the ceasefire, on the condition that it is bilateral with Israel.  Hamas and Jihad will cease all military actions against Israel, including Qassam rockets, kidnapping attempts, suicide bombers, etc. if Israel too will cease its aggression against the Palestinians.  This means that Israel must stop the targeted killings, end the siege on Gaza, cease the massive arrest campaign of Palestinian suspects, and end all incursions into the Palestinian territories.

 

The Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners would be part of a larger deal, but it would be performance based. If the ceasefire holds, Israel will continue to release Palestinian based on an agreed upon schedule.  It would be highly recommended to continue to involve Egypt in this process, because it will be important to have a reliable means of passing messages between the parties and in dealing with possible violations of the ceasefire prior to a renewed escalation.

 

In the Israeli Palestinian relations, where most Israelis and most Palestinians have a pretty good idea of what the solution to the conflict will look like, they have no idea at all of how to renew a process of getting there.  Steps that get the sides back into a process of implementing agreements are the right way to begin.  There are few things more important to Palestinians than getting their prisoners home.  There are few things more important to Israelis than putting an end to Palestinian violence against Israel. Both sides want and need more security in order to renew a process to make peace.  The opportunity for a new beginning lies right before us.

 

With more than 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons and with conditions whereby most Palestinians are not allowed or able to visit their loved ones in prison, the atmosphere is ripe for more attempted kidnappings.  Israel is arresting more and more Palestinians every evening and no end is in site. Palestinians view the issue of the prisoners in the same way that Israelis view the issue of the kidnapped soldiers.  Palestinians view these prisoners as political prisoners and feel helpless in their desire to bring their family members home.  That explains why the Palestinian public overwhelmingly supports the kidnap of Israeli soldiers – they view it as the one sure way to bring about a prisoner release, quite a vicious circle.

 

Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.  www.ipcri.org